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BENEE: The Duality of A Kiwi Hit-Maker

Stella Bennett is confronting her fears, embracing her idiosyncrasies, and releasing art on her own terms.

Content Warning: This article discusses issues and experiences related to Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Reader discretion is advised.


A year ago, BENEE was diagnosed with OCD, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. The global chart-climbing artist from New Zealand used to count while driving, softly counting up from one in the belief that if she stopped counting, she would crash and die. She was also convinced that every time she was on a flight, the plane would wind up in a fatal crash, killing her. But now those habits and intrusive thoughts have a name, and with her fluoxetine prescription and weekly appointments with a psychologist, she says she sees the world differently. “They got me out of a hole of having sad showers, now I can have happy showers,” she says of the antidepressants, flashing that almost cherubic smile.

Knowledge is power for Stella Rose Bennett, who entered the global stage when her viral hit “Supalonely” reached the Top Ten in 10 countries and received almost seven billion plays on TikTok in one month in 2020—a year before BENEE herself joined the platform. She’s still unpacking intrusive thoughts and the brutal fact of death though. Her single “Doesn’t Matter”, released last October, features the lyrics:Now I’m crossing my fingers / Flicking off the switches / Is my house filled with witches?” and 2020’s “Happen to Me” offers her understanding of why people leave this earth by taking their own lives.

“This year it’s made me realise how much we need to open this conversation about mental health, and how everyone should have access to therapy and a psychologist,” she says. “But obviously it’s expensive and it’s not that accessible.”

It’s mid-morning in late 2021 in Auckland when BENEE logs onto a video call with Rolling Stone. She’s had breakfast and fed her animals (Tui, her dog, and a cat she named Padasio—”It’s like a twist on pistachio but I wanted to make it sound bougie”), and as is the BENEE way, she’s makeup free, wearing thick layered necklace chains that poke through under baggy clothing. BENEE is music’s ultimate cool girl. Her black-dyed hair is cropped at the base of her neck, her pixie cut fringe is the kind many have asked for at the hairdresser but can never style the same after they leave. Not BENEE though, hers sits just right. She has the edge of a new-age punk, a member of Gen Z, she marches to the beat of her own drum and puts her mental health front and centre. Today, for instance, she’s planning her next drop on peer-to-peer preloved fashion app Depop. She wants to donate all profits to a charity or help fund psychology appointments for those without access. On World Mental Health Day in October, she posted her annual Instagram timeline gallery of ‘crying photos’, where she’s depicted looking utterly broken at various points across the last 12 months.

“I just got to this point where I was even doing interviews at one stage when I was really not happy at all,” she admits. “And then I had this weird thing with myself where I was like, ‘Just be honest about it. Say what’s up’. You shouldn’t feel like a burden for saying ‘I’m depressed’.”

I had this weird thing with myself where I was like, ‘Just be honest about it. Say what’s up’. You shouldn’t feel like a burden for saying ‘I’m depressed’.”

At time of writing, the Instagram post has over 160,000 likes and 1,600 comments, which range from “You are perfect” to “Your music helps me heal”.

“I found something in taking photos of myself when I’m really puffy and sad,” she adds. “I’ll be able to take a photo and then laugh about it, and then you can look back at that photo and there’s something comforting in that, for me at least. So I’m going to keep doing it.

BENEE creates a space for the multi-dimensional, those who are weighed and often defined by their mental health and illness, but also who are enviably in love with the world, they want to eat it up in one big bite. Perhaps this is why she speaks out about what she believes in on a political level. A few days earlier, some Trump-flag-waving anti-vaccine protesters gathered with around 3,000 demonstrators at New Zealand’s Parliament in Wellington. There were reports that some planned to ‘arrest’ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern; and if they couldn’t do that, they would shoot her.

“I can’t really sit there and not post about it,” says BENEE. “I found that even when the elections were on in the States—it was the Trump thing—I lost so many followers on the ‘Gram, because of all the posts.”

Those ‘posts’ saw BENEE speaking up about the then-US President’s long history of racist and misogynistic behaviour. In one Instagram Story post from 2020 she addressed her Trump-loving haters: “[…] get lawstttt,” she wrote. “I do hate trump. A lot.” 

“I got a lot of hate,” she says now, “and it was all stuff about people supporting stuff that was racist. And I just,” she pauses, thinking, “like you can hate me, you can send me hate, but I don’t care.”

When BENEE and I speak again it’s on the sun-drenched set of her music video for “Doesn’t Matter”. It’s a hot summer day at Te Haruhi Bay on New Zealand’s East Coast and BENEE is dressed for winter. She’s wearing a crochet vest over a baggy T-shirt, baggy jeans, and a green and black checked beanie with soft knitted devil horns. It’s a two-day shoot, conceptualised and co-directed by BENEE herself. She’s going for a French cinema inclination—inspired by the bridge in the song—and she chose this location for its famous black sand beaches and still water.

It’s her first time spearheading every single aspect of a visual for her music and this one, she tells me, began with a Pinterest board. A mood board was shared with me prior to this FaceTime call, along with the video’s treatment script. The document features photographs of svelte women, blonde and brunette, with cute fringes in fields and on beaches with horses, along with one image of a Sixties red convertible on an unmarked road, and a video still of Tyler, the Creator and his tuba player from his clip for “Lemonhead”. 

At the top of the script is a logline note from BENEE. It reads: “I’m wanting this music video to be like a short French indie film. It follows my friend Tiare & I on a trip to the beach. I want to highlight the lyrics in this song & get super vulnerable with it. I want a lot of the video to be focused on conversation between T & I with me opening up to her and her giving me friendly heart to heart advice.”

Watching the video now, it was executed perfectly, especially the final wide shot where the eye is drawn above BENEE and her guitarist Tiare Kelly to clouds melding gently into the shapes of ghostly faces. The final line of the script reads: “The clouds begin to move and merge into little demons (vfx) – the demons in her mind.”

BENEE’s music videos haven’t always played out so seamlessly. An early video for her double-Platinum single “Soaked” was scrapped because, as BENEE explains it, “I was kind of just like, it doesn’t really feel very me.” Then, in 2018, the clip for “Evil Spider” was abandoned after it also didn’t hit the mark.

“We were in LA and we had this huge team,” BENEE recalls. “There were extras, there was just… it all looked like, felt like, it was going to be perfect. And the day was just… We were running out of time and it all fell to pieces.” She shakes her head, cringing at the memory. “We watched the video and I was like, ‘I can’t release this. It can’t happen’.”

“We watched the video and I was like, ‘I can’t release this. It can’t happen’.”

BENEE has built her career on suburban ennui and self-effacing anxiety. Following the global success of “Supalonely” (the post-breakup anthem she performed live on US TV shows like Ellen and The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon), BENEE released her award-winning single “Glitter”, which became a TikTok dance challenge, and released collaborations with Grimes (the pure-hearted “Sheesh”) and Lily Allen (post-breakup sass single “Plain”). BENEE is about to get a whole lot busier too with her upcoming 62-date global tour, her first headline tour of this size. She tells me she’s been readying herself physically for the tour, she’s quit drinking and she’s taken up kick-boxing and Pilates.

While March brought with it the launch of the tour, so too did it see BENEE release her new EP Lychee, a glorious six-track mix of emotions and genres crafted in both her hometown and Los Angeles. While much of it was produced by long-time collaborator and fellow Kiwi Josh Fountain, Lychee feels like another species when compared to her past works. At the beginning of 2021, she was writing what she calls “sad girl stuff” and didn’t like the way it made her feel when she listened back. Lychee flips the script. Unlike her 2020-released album Hey u x, which featured many of her favourite artists, Lychee’s collaborations sit solely in the producer and co-writer credits.

That wasn’t exactly by design, however. When we speak again a few weeks later, BENEE is shuffling two things around. She’s got plants at home that need to be repotted—”They are all outgrowing their pots”—and she’s re-organising the tracks for the EP after the feature artist collaborations fell through.

The EP certainly doesn’t suffer for it. There’s the summery bop “Beach Boy”, written with mega hit-maker Greg Kurstin, who’s worked with Adele and Paul McCartney in the past. There’s “Never Ending Thing” a dark guitar-driven track with Rostam Batmanglij, co-founder of Vampire Weekend. Then there’s her team-up with Kenny Beats (who joined her for “Night Garden” on Hey u x) for “Soft Side”. And there’s the six-minute “Make U Sick”, which was originally written for a fashion show. Unfortunately, like the models it had planned to soundtrack, the song never made it down the runway—another COVID casualty. Instead, BENEE released the saucy, beat-laden power-positional as a secret track on the physical deluxe CD version of Hey u x. But now the song gets its official digital release on Lychee.

As is often the case when it comes to matters of art and creativity, one of the best bits on Lychee was a happy accident. BENEE and Kurstin were laying down the vocals for first single “Beach Boy” at his studio in LA when BENEE changed the lyrics from “be my beach babe” to “be my bitch babe”.

“He [Kustin] repeated it, this real quiet like dude,” BENEE chuckles. “He was like, ‘my bitch’ and we laughed, and I was like, ‘Fuck it. I actually need to record that’.”

Fascinatingly, much of the EP’s lyrical content is inspired by BENEE’s vivid imagination. In the same way her smash hit “Glitter” was sparked after someone poured glitter over her head in a gay club one night in Auckland, new tracks like “Hurt You, Gus” and “Marry Myself” feature entirely fictitious storylines. Gus was a name that just sounded good when BENEE wrote the lyrics and “Marry Myself” stemmed from her desire to create a visual world inside a song.

“I just liked the idea of driving,” she shrugs. “I feel that creates this image instantly and so that was definitely me trying to create this visual world where someone proposed to me. I did see a coyote when I was in LA,” she says, referring to the line “Sitting under pear tree / A coyote’s staring at me / Seems like a scene from a movie”. “So I was trying to incorporate that,” she continues. “But yeah. I don’t know. I just wanted to make a cutesy, dreamy song.”

This whimsical disposition teamed with artistic mastery is classic BENEE. She’s spontaneous and demonstrably young, but also emanates an air of authority and deep introspection. The two sides of her personality are on full show at the virtual showcase for her label Olive Records in late November. Named after the small salty fruit (because she loves eating them), BENEE launched the label in partnership with her manager Poppy Tohill in 2020. Tonight, she’s hosting label signings Muroki and There’s A Tuesday… from her living room. During the Q&A following the performances, BENEE is red-faced as she answers a few of the questions coming in on the live stream. Most of the questions are asking her to tour places like Brazil and Peru, but, while noting she’s embarrassed at being put on the spot in a live setting, she manages to deflect the focus from herself for a moment to gush about the artist label signings. At the very end of the virtual showcase, just before the stream cuts off, you can hear her mother say exasperatedly, in a very mum way, “Oh my god”.

BENEE

Anyone who has watched BENEE accept an award or has followed her on social media for some time knows she has an enviable relationship with her mum. While some young women spend their formative years avoiding their parents as they find themselves, BENEE has kept her mother, and the advice she’s given her, close.

“My mum has always told me that you know—it’s even when I’m thinking about breaking up with someone—she’s like, listen to whatever it’s saying in there,” she says, patting her stomach. “You know when something feels right and you know when something feels off. That for me has been what I’ve really gone by forever, and with every decision that I make. You know in your gut when something feels right and so I just follow that. I hope it leads me in the right direction.”

 Our time together is almost up and BENEE tells me she’s got an appointment with her psychologist later today. Speaking with ease, it sounds like something she’s genuinely looking forward to—a normalised part of our overall healthcare plan. Shortly before we say our goodbyes though, the conversation moves toward the one direction she’s not headed at the moment: toward a relationship.

“I was just looking at the tour schedule and everything, and just how life is panning out, and I just don’t have time for it,” she says, showing a maturity that feels far beyond her years. “Unless something comes up where I’m like, ‘Oh my god I want to be with this person’,” she clarifies. “Like crazy, intense feelings. It just hasn’t really got to me yet. I want to be in a relationship with my work.”


This interview features in the June 2022 issue of Rolling Stone Australia. If you’re eager to get your hands on it, then now is the time to sign up for a subscription.

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